David Irving: WSJ Editorial

Historians in the News

... Press accounts usually describe Mr. Irving as a Holocaust "revisionist" or denier. That he is, as a British court found in 2000, when it ruled against him in a defamation suit that he had brought against American scholar Deborah Lipstadt. But Mr. Irving is something worse, partly because he is something better: A man of learning and a certain kind of intellectual brilliance, he made dishonest use of both qualities in an attempt to restore the reputation of the Nazis and blacken those of their victims.

Sometimes this has been to noted effect: When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calls the Holocaust a "myth," he is doing so in large part on the authority of Mr. Irving (whom the Iranian government recently invited to speak). But often Mr. Irving's influence has been felt in ways that we are only dimly aware of.

Consider his first book, on the February 1945 Allied bombing of Dresden, in which he put the civilian death toll at between 100,000 and 250,000. That estimate--grossly exaggerated, as later scholarship would show--became widely accepted and helped spark a now popular perception that Germany was as much a victim of World War II as it was the instigator. Or take "Hitler's War," Mr. Irving's attempt to rescue the Fuehrer's reputation by casting Winston Churchill as the real warmonger. Mr. Irving's Hitler revisionism never caught on among serious scholars, but the Churchill revisionism did.

Here lies Mr. Irving's real cunning. For decades he successfully presented himself as a serious historian of admittedly outré views, when in fact he was the opposite: a propagandist posing as a scholar. His methods were "controversy" and the "challenging of taboos," typically catchphrases of the left that he adapted to his own purposes. This tactic was ultimately far more insidious--and effective--than his forays into Holocaust denial, calibrated as those often were. Had Mr. Irving only restrained himself slightly, the damage he might have done to our collective historical perceptions could have been incalculably greater.

Fortunately, perhaps, anti-Semites almost inevitably out themselves: Their views flare like hives, often inadvertently and on inconvenient occasions. Ahead of the recent verdict, Mr. Irving had already been bankrupted, not only financially but reputationally, thanks to the efforts of Ms. Lipstadt and others. That's where he might have remained for the rest of his life had it not been for the ill-timed intervention of the Austrian police and judiciary. Now the rest of us have the unpleasant task of reminding ourselves of exactly who this man is--and extending a begrudging hand of rescue.
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